In-Depth Review of Season 4 of “Black Mirror”
Charlie Brooker’s dark drama-technology anthology, Black Mirror, has been a recent love of mine. I had heard of the series about the time Season 3 was released, but only marathoned the entire series a few months ago, before Season 4’s release. With six new episodes full of futuristic technology and messages to heed warning of such tools, did the season live up to the hype? Let’s find out.
These are all based on my opinion of the episodes. These will have spoilers in them in order to properly discuss them, so beware if you haven’t seen them!
Episode 1: “USS Callister”
Quite possibly the most out of place of the bunch, and perhaps even the entire series itself, “USS Callister” follows a man, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), living amongst a virtual reality game he created, becoming his supposed “true self” (overbearing, misogynistic, controlling, etc.) in the comfort of the (modded) code. He uses DNA from his coworkers to create their in-game counterparts, without their knowledge. When a newcomer, Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti) is placed in the game, her in-game self develops autonomy and fights back against Daly’s imminent control. And things get bad, but with an kitschy homage to Star Trek and a black humor twist.
The technology featured in this episode is minimal in the expanse of the Black Mirror universe. Theoretically, this episode is probably the closest to our current timeline. Daly “uploads” the DNA samples and mods them into the game. Because it’s their DNA, they have similar, if not the same, thoughts as their real-life counterparts, thus Nanette coming to the realization that she’s stuck in the game. Daly himself transports his mind and body into the game with small sensors, which probably stem from the current trend of virtual reality (although this places your mind within the game, hence an aspect that becomes his unravelling). The tech isn’t as in your face with a warning call as previous episodes, so it’s a bit of mood whiplash if that’s what you’re expecting when you start this season, plus the complete change in tone.
I appreciate Nanette’s character and how she stands up to Daly, but it seems very forced. It just seems like that’s what we’re supposed to see, because we need to see this guy who is so cruel in game (but actually bookish in real life and completely unappreciated…) get taken down. But that parenthesis is the exact reason I have trouble with this episode. Barring the tone and humor change, which was refreshing and fun to watch, albeit slow in the beginning, the viewer has to remember that these so-called “people” in this gamespace aren’t actually real. He’s not committing any real crimes in the real world — in fact, the episode is set up so you think Daly is going to gain confidence and fall in love with Nanette, since she’s his only visible supporter/recognizer of his talent. I have qualms with being on a virtual character’s side, and sure, it’s fun to see the way the crew takes back control and stops his reign of terror in game. But because of how they did that, Daly is actually killed in the end, his mind and body being unable to escape the game and the digital world around him deleting itself. Even sadder, his door was locked shut — so who knows if anyone finds him? In turn, how am I, or anyone, supposed to feel about the ending? This mixed reaction is what Brooker was probably looking for, but it doesn’t sit right. It doesn’t feel well thought out. If it was changed where Daly didn’t die, and maybe just his in-game avatar did, somehow, or he learned a lesson, it might have less impact but it would make more sense. Point being, Daly was not set up as a character that deserved to die. His gaming self might have, but not the real Daly. I always say, the ending can make or break an episode or movie. And this broke it — as a few other episodes of the season do, too.
Episode 2: “Arkangel”
“Arkangel” happens to be the first episode directed by a female (the amazing Jodie Foster), and while that is groundbreaking, it hangs in the lower half with the episodes that just did not hit their mark this season. “Arkangel,” like its successor “Crocodile,” seems to polarize audiences from what I’ve seen — you either love it or hate it (add “Metalhead” to that mix as well).
The concept is incomparable: what if you could track every single thing about your child, from their location to their health to what they can see, all at the touch of your shiny tablet? That’s the prospect for Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Sara (Brenna Harding) Sambrell, who decide to take part in the free trial of Arkangel, which installs a chip in Sara’s brain and allows Marie to see everything she could ever want, without the full knowledge of Sara. Initially, it turns out to be a success, going insofar as to visually censoring what is deemed as “bad” for a child by means of audio distortion and pixelization. Sara grows to about late elementary school underdeveloped, with a lack of knowledge of the world around her. Marie becomes worried when Sara tries to view shock sites and even prick her own finger with blood, only to be met with pixels — however, she does the right thing by having the censoring turned off and the tablet stowed away, so Sara can further grow up without the inhibition of Arkangel following her.
But of course, this doesn’t last for long, as we wouldn’t have an episode. In Sara’s teenage years (supposedly, 15, although the actress looks far older), Marie meddles into her daughter’s life by bringing Arkangel back without Sara’s knowledge when she can’t locate her one night. Things go awkward extremely fast and eventually Sara finds out and nearly beats her mother to death, symbolically, with the exact tablet used against her. Quick escalation, I know — which is my biggest issue with this episode.
Like I said before, the premise is one of the most interesting Black Mirror’s ever done, since it has so many possible repercussions and successes and fits right into our current surveillance-obsessed society. But the characterizations of Sara and Marie are so incredibly unlikeable from the start, it’s hard to connect with either of them, and by the time the episode is over, you can really only say, “Well, that happened.” You’ll see this happen in “Crocodile” too, but more on that later. Sure, Marie wants what’s best for her daughter. But their relationship is so oddly strained for unspecified reasons that can’t just be due to the technology. It’s never truly explored, nor any hint of what happened to the father. Marie only really reacts to her surroundings, and it doesn’t feel natural. Neither does Sara’s descent into the “bad crowd.” I think this could’ve been remedied by a larger focus on the relationship between Sara and Marie, and in turn their relationship with the outside world through Sara’s censored eyes. When we meet Sara as an angsty teenager, it just doesn’t stick nor is compelling enough to carry the episode. She’s an absolute stressor to Marie, but again, everything seems forced. If we had just started with little backstory on the technology (or even told throughout the episode further) and Marie turning on Sara’s Arkangel when she’s a teenage, I think a lot of the problems the episode had would be fixed. The message is basically trying to bash you over the head, but it doesn’t hit. You don’t feel connected to the people we see on screen, which is extremely difficult to watch in turn since that emotional investment that we so desperately need is not there. We could’ve had it all… and then some.
Episode 3: “Crocodile”
I’ll come right out and say it — “Crocodile” is my least favorite episode out of this entire season. It’s stunning visually, shot and directed amongst the beautiful backdrops of a cold and barren Iceland, perfectly mimicking the characters. But that’s about it. We have another case of writing/plot/characters bringing down a perfectly good idea, one that may not be so far from us yet again. “Crocodile” deals with the public recalling of memories, from the aptly named “Recaller.” Used by government and insurance agents, it’s a way of getting as close to accurate accounts of a scene from a witness as you can get, showcasing and reliving the memories on a screen as a person recalls them, though they can be inaccurate. Sounds nice and breezy and easy, but you can see how this could get messy. And boy does it, just not in the way it should’ve.
Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough) and her boyfriend Rob (Andrew Gower) end up committing an accidental hit and run with him at the wheel. Not wanting to get law enforcement involved, they hide the body and move on with their lives. At least, Mia did — fifteen years later, she has a family, a nice career, and not a care in the world (and a fresh new haircut). But Rob hasn’t, and he’s an absolute mess, which is only made worse when he catches a headline depicting the victim’s wife still looking for the cyclist. He visits her in a hotel and a heated argument ensues, with Rob wanting to send an anonymous letter confessing and Mia wanting nothing to do with it, In the end, in a fit of rage, Mia kills Rob. Wait, what? Kills? Yes. Yep. Kills Rob. That’s a gut punch surprise if I’ve ever seen one.
And here’s where the story begins and unravels, all under an hour. Okay, so Mia just killed Rob. Odd, but given the circumstances and her reputation, okay, maybe it’s understandable. But it’s gotta bite her back, doesn’t it? And boy does it! Unfortunately, Mia witnesses a pizza delivery truck hitting a pedestrian from her hotel window, and is now remembered as a key witness when the man decides to sue. Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) works for that insurance company, and is going around collecting memories for a proper case. Eventually, she works her way to Mia, and you can easily imagine what happens. Mia tries her darndest to suppress the two murders from her memories, but it’s too late. She’s seen them, and fear overtakes Mia again. Somewhat reluctantly — which is odd — she ends up killing Shazia, her husband, and her son, for fear of them all identifying and remembering her and pressing charges. Yeah, she kills a baby. Seems to be out of necessity. But still, a baby… but that doesn’t matter, because the baby was blind and couldn’t see Mia anyway, but a guinea pig conveniently Chekov Gun’d his way into being Mia’s downfall since apparently you can now scan animal’s memories too. And that’s just about where I lost it while watching.
Mia’s descent into madness and murder just does not fit with her prior characterization at all. She becomes a different person in the second half of the episode, but not in the proper way that you’d expect, or even assume she would go. That might sound like a good thing in the grand scheme of writing and television, but in this case, it’s the episode’s kryptonite. It just downright doesn’t make any sense. On that term, who are we supposed to relate to? Mia? Shazia? The guinea pig? I honestly don’t know. No one is given enough development outside of the basics to truly connect with. Mia eventually being a murderer doesn’t bar her from being able to relate to the audience — that’s been proven countless times by characters with terrible motives being likeable and enchanting to watch (Patrick Bateman, Alex DeLarge, Jigsaw, etc.). We don’t know how Mia dealt with the pain of knowing she covered up manslaughter in those fifteen years, we only know that she somehow hit the end of her road and drove her own car off a cliff, starting this domino effect of craziness. The episode ends up feeling like a senseless killing without purpose, a distinction that should be noted when other senseless killings take place on the small screen. I’m not against a psychotic woman murdering a baby if that’s what her character calls for, but again, it seems forced due to circumstance. It doesn’t seem like something she would truly do, rather something that felt like a puppeteer controlling her.
Finally, Black Mirror is known for its good twist endings. This is not one of them. So the baby was blind and couldn’t ID her — positively sad, really gets you thinking. But there was an unspoken rule that the Recaller can work on guinea pigs, and somehow, they were able to extract those memories to bring Mia to some sort of justice. To me, that felt like an intense cop out, with Brooker throwing his hands up in the air saying, “How do we end this episode now?” while spinning a wheel and landing on “guinea pig brings our main character down.” Not only is it highly implausible in the setting of the episode (no one ever said anything about the Recaller even working on animals), it’s an unsatisfying ending, one that again, you really don’t feel anything for. So Mia gets caught in public, all her efforts gone to waste. Then we cut to black and we’re left to assume the myriad of ways it could’ve gone down and the like, except we’re not since the connection to Mia and her killing spree has already kicked us off the bandwagon. It does not work. Period. It’s an absolute shame, because the technology used could’ve been an amazing thing to explore in a different situation. Just not like this. Beautiful cinematography can’t save you every time.
Episode 4: “Hang the DJ”
A refreshing episode in a spirit similar to Season 3’s breakout “San Junipero” (although not my personal favorite of that run), “Hang the DJ” is definitely bring us back on the upward spiral for what to expect from Black Mirror. Much more lighthearted than the season’s previous episode, the story follows Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), singles living in some weirdly sterile world following the orders from a talking device called Coach which is part of “The System.” Coach directs them to who they’ll date and how long they’ll date for. Even if they try to fight back, they are forced to take part in the relationship no matter how bad it may be. The System supposedly guarantees 99.8% of the time that, on the imminent pairing day, you’ll be with your compatible match and live happily ever after. Supposedly.
Amy and Frank check the expiry on their relationship and it’s only 12 hours. Quite shocking considering their awkward but enjoyable air is clear and they’re most definitely compatible. So what is this System doing, when we, the viewer, know these two must be the destined goof couple?
Well, apparently nothing yet, as the pair are forced the be with others who they don’t exactly hit it off with, and for an extremely long time — even five years. Time doesn’t seem to move normally in this systemic world, but it’s portrayed through snapshots and montages, all the while showcasing Amy and Frank’s detachment, emotionally and physically, from their paired up partners.
In the beginning of the episode, it’s show up that couples check their expiration date on their system tablets when they first meet, which starts the countdown. Naturally, Amy and Frank are much wiser, and mutually agree to not check when they get paired up again. Of course, towards the end of the episode, they get into a fight when Frank one-sidedly checks his date and turns it, somehow, into a length that went from 5 years to 20 hours. Amy is enraged. Frank tries to make it up. The whole schmoozy shebang. Moral of the story, Amy’s pairing day comes and she knows in her heart that she’s meant to be with Frank, so she decides to run away with him in the city and rebel against the System, something out of a YA novel (though it is not portrayed that cheesily, it’s just funny to note how it sounds on paper). The plot twist is revealed, and it’s pretty damn hard to see coming unless you’re extremely astute or a mind reader: the world around them disintegrates into pixels while 1000 other versions of the Amy and Frank couple stand around then, with numbers displayed over their heads, indicating that this was all an internal simulation in a dating app on a phone and 998 of those couples fell so in love that they decided to rebel and leave together. Here’s where that lovely 99.8% success rate comes from. We haven’t been following the real Amy and Frank. They’re over in a swanky bar, clutching the very System via a dating app. Yep, everything we just saw happened in their phones. And new love begins…
Now, as I mentioned before, on paper this can sound like the cheesiest YA dystopian romance novel in existence, so cheesy even Wisconsin has a run for their money. But the beauty of this episode, at least in my view of it, is that it subverts it completely. It treats the leads as adults, as they are, and doesn’t downplay the natural difficulty of dating. Further, the portrayal of sex in this episode is by far the most effective I’ve seen Black Mirror do (no, I’m not counting the prime minister x pig scene). Usually, the sex feels out of place and forced for just the point of “we can show people having sex.” I recall one of the men Amy is set up with, who is physically gorgeous and she’s clearly attracted to, tell her that it’s just easier to have sex right up front with no strings attached to see how compatible they are. She reluctantly complies, since Coach paired her with him. This notion is intriguing and can be taken in many ways. It begs the question, does sex have to equate with a relationship? How important is sex in a relationship? How much emotional attachment lies in sex and the relationship? And so many more. Like the best of the Black Mirror episodes, it makes you think.
The treatment of the characters and the setting allows for that cheesy YA feel to be eliminated entirely. The Coach is a detached, disembodied mechanical voice, acting as the all-knowing being. Even with that, Amy and Frank are allowed to be autonomous. They’re allowed to think and feel and understand what it means to be attached to someone and find your soulmate, through experiencing the ones that aren’t. Though they are theoretically just simulations in a giant algorithmic web of an app, what they do on screen is felt by the viewer. We can’t help but root for them.
Going off of that, one of the other significant strengths of this episode that the others didn’t have is, not so shockingly, characters we care about! The dialogue between Amy and Frank and their budding, star-crossed-lovers-at-the-hands-of-technology situation is so endearing and genuinely entertaining to watch. Big props to the main acting duo for making the characters feel so real and allowing the audience to truly care and learn about them. The twist is even more effective in this way when you consider what you had just seen, and what you now know about these characters. It works so well. While I enjoyed “San Junipero,” effectively it’s Season 3 counterpart, it was not one of my favorites of the season. However, “Hang the DJ” manages to nag the top spots for its smart writing, characters, production, acting, and twist. Truly a standout of the season.
Episode 5: “Metalhead”
Ah, “Metalhead.” “Metalhead” is Black Mirror’s first episode shot completely in black and white. And if you thought your expectations were subverted with the season’s opener, you’ll likely have your mind blown again. This episode is truly not like any other in the repertoire, and not just in the absence of color or shortened run time.
We follow Bella (Maxine Peake), Clarke (Jake Davies), and Tony (Clint Dyer) in a barren post-apocalyptic landscape, actual location unspecified. When I say barren, I mean it — there a wide, soaring shots showing just how empty the world around them is. Bella and Tony enter an abandoned warehouse while attempting to find a remedy for someone named Jack and/or for a promise to Bella’s sister; meanwhile, Clarke tries to hijack a car, presumably to ease their getaway strategy. Unfortunately, things don’t go so well — a mechanical “dog” akin to the weird, bent-legged robot dogs made by Boston Dynamics (Google their picture and you’ll see the similarity) have awoken from their guarding slumber and thus begins the epic chase for the remainder of the episode. These aren’t just any robot dogs, they’ve got the ability to produce shrapnel and eject it at targets, and shoot anyone they raise a metal paw at. In just about two minutes, Bella’s on her own, as the dog has killed both Tony and Clarke and is roaring to get Bella, for reasons unspecified except we’re to believe it’s just their purpose.
The rest of the episode becomes a neck-and-neck survival battle. The shrapnel that the robot dog dispersed carries a tracking device when implanted into the skin, allowing them to keep a watchful eye on their prey (as does the crude infrared detection in their system). Bella excruciatingly attempts to extract it from her thigh and tosses it into the river. It’s over, right? Wrong. Unfortunately. That damn dog is still chasing her, but it’s lost a part of its leg and can’t get to her high up in a tree. She outsmarts the dog and manages to gain the upper hand.
Maxine Peake carries the episode extremely well. She’s convincing, bold, determined, and not willing to give up. The shot composition and set design is beautifully dark, not in the physical sense. But something in this episode is missing. For the majority of the episode, Bella doesn’t do much outside of running from the thing that’s trying to kill her for reasons we aren’t privy to, and defending herself. She’s resourceful, as she tires out the dog, forcing it to recharge and allowing her to escape to a (somewhat) safe house. And now, she has a weapon, a shotgun — thanks to the long-dead couple who lived in that house. Bella resourcefully fights back as the dog manages to find her again, inhibiting it with paint on its sensor, shooting it and putting up a hell of a fight. But, again, the shrapnel trackers are deployed, and this time, they hit Bella in the spots she won’t be able to recover from if she cuts them out. And the final “twist,” if you could call it that, is the box she wanted all along contained teddy bears. Yup.
This episode suffers from a few but substantial problems, making it one of the weaker of the bunch. Bella’s character is minimal, but she’s more a victim of circumstance and lack of substantial plot. (That also saves her, because unlike the main characters of “Arkangel” and “Crocodile,” Bella is tolerable and interesting to watch, and her characterization is stable and appropriate to the events around her.) As I mentioned, these dogs inflict a tracker system, but even without it, the dog is able to find Bella through what seems to be some sort of infrared zoning or light and shadow/sensor detection. So why is the tracker shrapnel needed in the first place? We don’t know. We don’t know who created these things, or even if they were intended to be killer monsters in the first place. We don’t even know if they’re the cause of the world collapsing as we know it. I know ambiguity can work. The concept of vagueness is vital in slowly revealing information. But we don’t get any of that. At all. Therefore, the payoff feels flat and boring, and a waste of forty minutes. Which is something you definitely don’t want to hear about. Had this been given more room to expand and more about Bella’s character and the world around her been explored, I might have thought differently. But it was an unfortunate let down.
Episode 6: “Black Museum”
The final episode in a season of ups and downs brings us a three-part story akin to the series’ special “White Christmas,” with plenty of homages and easter eggs to previous episodes of the series. Before you ask — yes, this is my favorite of the season. Prior, I had been cemented on “Hang the DJ” taking the number one spot. I was sure it would remain there upon watching this episode, up until the latter third where it completely changed. The ending of a work can completely make or break it. For some episodes this season, it broke it. For “Black Museum,” it made it a star.
First, I would like to point out that while everyone seems to hail “White Christmas” as one of the best episodes of the entire series, I’d have to disagree. It is by no means the worst, and contains some excellent acting and interesting characters. It’s format is done miles better than “Black Museum”’s. But it was not as satisfying as I had expected it to be, twist and all. It was missing a lot for me, especially in the first story Jon Hamm’s character tells. Now, then, I know everyone may not agree with me on holding “Black Museum” very high, but I suppose I should be a bit clearer — I hold the latter third of the episode high. Unfortunately, without the prior portions of the episode, as some technology is integrated into it that is shown, it wouldn’t make sense if it was just left to the latter third. Still, that part saved the episode for me, and something that I wish had been the start of it all along. One could argue that’d be putting all your cards out too quickly due to its nature, but I think a subtle build up could have worked in its favor.
That being said, the first two stories are not truly worth mentioning. The basis of the episode follows Nish (Letitia Wright), who stops off at the aptly named Black Museum whilst needing to recharge her car. The museum is owned by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), an odd fellow, the type to collect and display technological failures and criminally weird artifacts to anyone who manages to find it. Thus begins his tour with Nish, who follows along as he narrates the three stories.
Since I don’t find the first two vignettes that valuable of a watch, though they’ll become important in the later conclusion, here’s the gist: Haynes is/was a neurological researcher. He’s more devilish than he looks. He gives some sort of implant to a doctor that allows him to feel the exact pain his patients feel, when they have a shared neural network via a crazy head gadget. He uses it and becomes a miracle worker, but then a patient dies on the table whilst the neurotransmitter was working. Now, he has a side effect of feeling pain as pleasure, and goes positively mad from it, eventually going into a vegetative state. Not so cool. The second deals with a husband whom Haynes convinced to place his comatose wife’s consciousness in his own mind. As you can imagine, it sounds great on paper, but in practice, only causes a myriad of problems. The two fight, oddly internally, and eventually the wife’s consciousness is transferred to a stuffed monkey that can only say two phrases. Her son grows tired of it, and since it’s illegal to delete her, she’s stuck inside the monkey forever. Also not so cool.
It’s clear Haynes is a wicked man, and it only gets worse when he shows Nish the main attraction: a hologram of Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), who was convicted of murder not too long before. Haynes coaxes the still-alive Clayton, pre-execution, to hand over his post-death consciousness to Haynes. Not sure why you’d want to do that, but, I suppose Clayton felt he had nothing to lose. He does, and when he’s reborn, he’s only able to relive his torturous death for all eternity, i.e. dying via electric chair. The worst part is that Haynes allows museumgoers (and high-paying sadists and racists) to adjust the amount of pain Clayton feels, an oddly excruciating amount for a projection. This turns Clayton’s consciousness into an absolute shell, where he can no longer fight back.
This is where everything turns around. Haynes starts to asphyxiate. Nish is wildly unamused and reveals that she’s Clayton’s daughter, and that the state wrongfully accused and executed him. Her mother committed suicide as a result, and Nish is here to get revenge, poisoning the water she gave to Haynes, hacking the AC (and then causing a short), and reversing the consciousness so Haynes is now in Clayton’s place. It’s sweet justice served right. Haynes is effectively dead, physically and mentally. Nish’s mother shares a consciousness with her and is overjoyed to also have the justice served. And they drive away, truly happy, as the museum goes up in flames.
This reveal was critical. The ending of this episode was so critical. If it didn’t have this ending, it would’ve been in the low ranks. But something about Nish’s character and how she coolly and calmly got the job done, especially when it was so emotionally charged, was so intriguing to witness. Haynes is a terrible person, sure, but we are able to learn the extent of his horridness and when Nish takes control, it’s extremely satisfying. It’s rare that you go into an episode and nearly want to click out, only to come out raving about the ending. But it happens here.
One of the other things that sold me was it was plausible. And it made sense. Other plot twists of the season just simply didn’t, either due to lack of character development, weak plot, an unconvincing character action, or all of the above. “Black Museum” managed to, thankfully, subvert that. Chekov’s Gun works here so well, with the broken AC and (poisoned) water. It all works because you don’t expect it, but when it happens, you feel like you should’ve seen it coming. Here it feels that Brooker has the upper hand on the viewer, being a true master manipulator of the screen and script. In that sense, the script works flawlessly in terms of set up and payoff. And though it got a rocky start, that ending made it by far the best of the season. (I’m knocking it from a 9/10 to an 8.5 because of the beginning though. But it was so close!)
What did you think? Are you excited to see what the potential season 5 could bring?
Originally published at www.herculture.org.